INSOMNIA

Why Particular Words Get Stuck in Our Heads When We Can't Sleep

Turns out there's a term for when you're lying awake at 3AM and your inner voice won't stop saying "Waitrose and Partners" over and over.
vice stuck record
Illustration: Charlotte Mei

Like many of us, I have a relationship to sleep that is best described as acrimonious. As a naturally anxious person who finds stress easy to procure and difficult to manage, I am plagued by nights without end, days without rest.

My sleeplessness leads to difficulties both at work (a lack of productivity, the gravest sin of all here in the threshing machine that is the always-on world of employment) and in my personal life, where the heavy tug of tiredness can lead to craving a sense of reclusiveness and then immediately feeling sad and despondent when another Saturday evening passes by with little but Match of the Day and tap water for company.

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The problem is one that, so the NHS reports, affects one in three of us here in the UK to varying degrees. Sleep-related difficulties can encompass everything from the occasional bout of post-pub tossing and turning to prolonged – even life-long – chronic insomnia. It seems as much a part of contemporary life as Tinder, Tory rule and the unstoppable rise of astrology.

Anyone reading this not lucky enough to have been gifted the ability to sleep like an unusually content six-month-old baby will be familiar with the unpleasant and unshakeable sensation of trying to make it through to morning, while inhabiting a mind which has decided that 3.22AM on a Tuesday is the perfect time to test out every single one of the estimated 100 trillion synaptic responses each of us unwittingly possesses.

During periods of acute stress or general mental-un-wellbeing, the usual zoetrope of half-forgotten embarrassments and fresh-in-the-mind forthcoming anxieties pauses and is replaced by something far stranger. Something far worse, in fact. The myriad memories are swapped for a maddening repetition as a word or a phrase becomes lodged deep in my mind, my queasy, overworked inner-voice hoarsely saying the same thing over and over and over again.

Just recently I found myself sweaty and inert, on the eve of an important day in the office, listening to the words "Busaba Eathai, Busaba Eathai, Busaba Eathai…" looping ceaselessly like the most aggravating minimal techno record imaginable. And I like minimal techno.

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"My experience of this usually revolves around song lyrics," says Marina Benjamin. Marina is the author of the recently published study of her own travails with perennial sleeplessness, Insomnia. "I tend to think of it as a mental equivalent of an ear worm."

It is perhaps for this reason that during the course of our conversation, Marina alights on a phrase that is deceptively simple, but absolutely perfect: "stuck record syndrome".

The description is painfully apt. The infernal repetitions – which in my experience at least modulate only in tone, pitch, speed, intensity, pronunciation and pacing, rather than in their choice of phrase or word on any given night – are as jarring as the sound of a needle stuck in a groove. It can be – and this is not a word to be thrown around lightly, but is apt in this context – harrowing.

"It feels as though some part of your brain has become autonomous," Marina says. "It has escaped your control."

In Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night, his study of the world of the metropolis after dark, author Sukhdev Sandhu recounts time spent at St Thomas' Hospital, where he was nestled amongst the oxygen mask-clad non-sleepers who congregate nightly to be placed under examination by the hospital's team of sleep technicians.

Both the author and the technicians are able to hypothesise reasons as to why sleep eludes so many city-dwellers – for one, the fact that, in Sandhu's words, "capitalism detests sleep", which in turn generates a situation in which many of us feel "super-stimulated by the buzz of entertainment and the pressure of work deadlines" – yet neither they nor other experts seem able to proffer a proper reason why many of us endure the linguistic Chinese water torture that is stuck record syndrome.

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Marina has her own ideas about why some are doomed to be forever assaulted by odd fragments of language. "It could be primacy-recency effect in play," she says, referencing the concept that suggests we have a tendency to remember things at the start and end of a list rather than those playing the role of the filling in a memorial sandwich. "But," Marina adds, "the brain is a mysterious thing."

She likens the linguistic intrusion to the warped logic that underpins the dream-state that usually accompanies sleep. "When we're dreaming, things we've seen during the day filter in. But those things don't always feel relevant, and that is where the essential oddity of dreaming sets in. Bits of your brain are awake, but it is never obvious or clear why certain perceptions or thoughts come to the fore. Often, I feel like a voyeur of my inner-self."

Considered in this context, the sonic results of stuck record syndrome – the syllables of "epistolary", say, or "Waitrose and Partners", to use just two recent examples from my bank of listless mental 12-inches – are, perhaps, no different from the weird and warped things that the brain throws toward us in dreams. The difference is, dreams can be – and often are – sources of solace, sites of satisfaction, cathedrals of comfort, reminding us of the limitless capabilities of imagination that it turns out each of us possess.

Beyond idle curiosity as to why the name of a long-forgotten Norwich City footballer has decided to re-enter my psyche after a decade-long absence, there is nothing pleasurable to be gained from the drip-drip, tap-tap of a brain that has decided the only way to shut up the cacophonous voices of fear, dread and utter limitless, fathomless anxiety that speak to so many of us, so often, is to replace them with a piece for a solo performer. It is a record I'd like to be able to break. It is a record I fear many of us are stuck with forever.

@bain3z / charlottemei.com